Reflections on a Pioneer Beekeeper

Having recently (Oct 2008) returned from the beautiful Yellow Box country of Victoria’s Grampian Ranges, and visiting the now abandoned Zumsteins’ site, I am still reflecting on the tenacity and inspirational drive of our early beekeepers.

While driving north-west along the Mount Victory Road about 22 kms from Halls Gap I pulled into a wayside stop alongside the Mackenzie River for a break when I encountered a number of memorials and plaques to the memory of Walter Zumstein. One of the memorials which is in the shape of an oversized beehive had a plaque stating that Walter pioneered beekeeping in the area and had built a number of cottages that can still be seen on the hill across from the nearby Mackenzie River.

Intrigued my family and I took a walk across a nearby bridge up to the cottages for a closer look. We found the cottages to be now abandoned but appeared to be part of a former settlement. Wandering around the area wecame upon a rudimentary swimming pool and discovered various photographic plaques commemorating Walter’s pioneering efforts in the area which had included beekeeping and what appeared to be historic photos depicting an early model of ‘farm stay’ B&B accommodation for guests. 

Further research revealed that Walter Ernest Zumstein was born in Melbourne in July 1885 as the second son of Swiss-born Herman Zumstein and his English wife Emily, and was educated at Caulfield Grammar. He was forced to abandon hope of a university education when his father, an importer of drapery and furnishings, suffered a number of business failures. After working briefly in a shipping office, Walter travelled to Gippsland where he learned bee-keeping. In 1906 he was employed by W.J. & F. Barnes to manage their beekeeping operation at Shanty Crossing in the Grampians. It was Walter’s task to establish the hives, relying on bush tracks for the supply of materials and provisions and trusting in the knowledge and bush skills he had acquired in Gippsland.

Conditions were harsh, and in 1910 Walter left Barnes and secured his own bee site from the State Forests Department on the Eastern bank of the Mackenzie River for a halfpenny an acre. He cleared the site and established his apiary by transporting his 20 hives in a wheelbarrow as far up the Mackenzie River as he could manage. In 1911 he gained permission to establish a residence in the corner of his lease which he built as a stone and weatherboard cottage the following year (now demolished). By this time his apiary had expanded to 60 hives.

In 1915, aged 29, Walter embarked for overseas service with the 5th Battalion Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.), landing on Gallipoli in May 1915. Evacuated to Mudros and thence to the County of London Hospital he was treated for enteric fever. On leave in Scotland he met and then married Jean Brooks on Anzac Day, 1916.

Walter and Jean returned to Melbourne in Sep 1919 where Walter was discharged from the AIF and by November he had returned to his apiary and cottage at what is now known as the Zumsteins Crossing. During the 1920s Walter and his wife used their apiary earnings to develop a tourist destination, planting the European trees that are a feature of the Crossing.

In 1930, Walter commenced construction of the ‘Red’ Shack, the first of his pise cottages (now demolished) to provide holiday accommodation. Pise, or rammed earth construction, is a method of building walls using compressed soil, a particularly suitable form of construction where building sites are remote and/or funds limited. It is also considered to be superior to mud brick with respect to weather resistance due to its high density and hardness. From 1934 onwards he built the three remaining cottages to be still seen on the site today – the ‘Green’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Orange’ cottages so named because of the colour of the painted timber lintels over the windows and doors. Second-hand materials, including some doors and windows from the Lutheran Church in Horsham were incorporated into the construction of each cottage. It is said that locals used to protest at the noise Walter made as he passed by at night on his bicycle on his way to Horsham with tins of honey.

Construction of the cottages was laborious and time-consuming – large excavations were dug into the hillside by hand and all excavated material was removed by wheelbarrow. Two large granite boulders, obviously too difficult to remove, remain a prominent feature in two of the cottages.

With the Grampians becoming a popular tourist and bushwalking destination by the 1930s, Walter benefited from the growing enthusiasm for nature. In the early 1930s he opened a walking trail to the Fish Falls with the aid of unemployed workers.

During 1935 he commenced excavation for a concrete swimming pool and on completion charged visitors sixpence for a swim. Later, he was granted an additional quarter acre of land for the construction of a tennis court. So popular was the resort that it was common for hundreds of campers to converge on the area for the Christmas holidays. Walter supplied campers with milk and honey and transported the mail in an ageing Model T Ford.

The sale of the three Pise cottages in 1958 paid for an overseas trip for Walter and his wife to visit their daughter in the United States. The couple returned to the Crossing in 1959, then moved to Horsham. Walter died at the Wimmera Base Hospital on October 17, 1963. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered at the Crossing.

References (with acknowledgements to Parks Victoria):

  1. Victoria’s Heritage: Zumstein’s Crossing, Grampians National Park by Daniel Catrice, circa 1995.:   (http://www.parkweb.vic.gov.au/resources/22_2199.pdf
  2. Plaques/memorials scattered throughout the area.

Author: Paul Frost, Adelaide, South Australia